×

As N.H. considers letting towns upgrade polling tech, vendors show off wares in Concord

  • Vendors demonstrating their electronic voter check-in devices on Friday in Concord. David Brooks—Monitor Staff



Monitor staff
Monday, April 03, 2017

If New Hampshire allows electronic check-in at polling places, replacing ballot clerks drawing lines through voter names in printed books with people touching icons on computer tablet screens, it will be due in part to one unlikely motivation: the alphabet.

“There’s nothing more frustrating to a voter than standing in line because your name starts with the letters A to D, but the M-to-Z check-in line is empty. ... This eliminates that,” said Rob Rock, the director of elections for Rhode Island, describing his state’s experience with what are known as electronic poll books.

Speed and convenience, both for voters and for polling-place workers, were big selling points Friday as vendors of five companies that make e-poll books pitched their wares to state and local election officials in the Legislative Office Building.

The event came days before a public hearing on a Senate bill allowing towns to upgrade their polling-place tech.

In most e-polling systems, for example, a voter can check in just by scanning the barcode on their driver’s license, then pushing the “OK” button if the correct identification comes up on the screen. This takes a few seconds, as compared to having a ballot clerk hunt through a list of voters and then draw a line through the person’s name, as is required by state law. And since all the tablets have all voters, there’s no need to divide up registration lines by letters of the alphabet.

It can also speed up things for poll workers and officials.

“The polls closed at 7 p.m. By 7:02 I know how many voters had checked in,” said Lori Radke, town clerk of Bedford, which tested an electronic check-in system from Missouri-based Knowink at its town elections in March.

Radke said the system, which involved eight electronic pads overseen by 35 ballot clerks, went smoothly and easily – more smoothly than voting day itself, which was delayed by the March 14 snowstorm – even though voter registrations had to be duplicated on paper because state law requires it. She said it was much more efficient and accurate than the traditional method of printed lists of voters crossed out by clerks after voters show I.D.

“Our system is very antiquated. There’s a lot of room for human error,” Radke said of the paper-based system.

Radke said she wasn’t concerned about digital security because the information gathered by the systems is already public, but not everybody agreed with that point of view.

“The security aspect of it – most of the questions have been about that,” said Christopher Messier, moderator in Manchester’s Ward 10, as he watched a system demo. Manchester has been one of the state’s leading municipalities in pushing for electronic registration.

Proponents say a digital system can help reduce voter fraud, easing comparisons among voting databases in different communities to prevent people from voting in more than one place. Rhode Island’s Rock described his state’s system, which has central oversight of all polling places using it.

New Hampshire is considering whether to allow towns and cities to buy tablet-based systems for checking in voters, keeping track of absentee ballots and perhaps handling same-day voter registration. A law to allow the tech upgrade was killed by the Legislature last year; another proposal, Senate Bill 113, will be the subject of a public hearing on Tuesday.

As written, the bill does not include electronic voting, only voter check-in and registration. It says that local communities have to pay for the system themselves if they want to run a trial. With individual tablets costing $1,000 to $1,500 apiece, the systems can cost about $1 to 2 per voter, depending on the details of the purchase – such as whether to include printers – and the number of tablets used.

Proponents argue that such systems can quickly pay for themselves by cutting labor costs of running elections.

The National Conference of State Legislators says that jurisdictions in 33 states use some form of electronic polling, and that eight have developed certification programs similar to those used for other voting machines. The lack of certification programs can be a problem, as many state laws require election-based systems to have such certificates.

Even the one test that has been run in New Hampshire showed how a state’s requirements can change things. New Hampshire, unlike many states, did not allow the system to use date of birth as well as first and last name when searching for a voter among registration lists, so the software had to be tweaked for the Bedford test.

Bedford also discovered another obstacle when preparing for its test, Radke said: The state does not allow driver’s licenses to be scanned. That regulation had to be waived for the test.

Systems were on display in Concord on Friday from companies in Florida, Missouri and New Jersey with names like ElecTec and VR Elections. Some ran on Windows operating systems and some on iPads, they had somewhat different methods of uploading and sharing data, and the “user interface” visible on the screens differed among companies – but because the systems do a relatively straightforward database task and operate within parameters drawn up in state laws, many attendees commented that they seemed quite similar to each other.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)